Helping Chicago renters with housing issues
Rentervention is designed for low-income tenants in Chicago to self-help (via web or SMS), or be connected to a pro bono attorney who can seamlessly provide brief legal services to get them advice they need.
The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF) is the IOLTA fund for the state of Illinois.
LTF makes grants to legal aid organizations to ensure the door to justice is open to all residents in Illinois, regardless of income and resources.
In 2017, LTF embarked on a mission to radically rethink how legal aid organizations could increase the volume of assistance they can offer to provide services to the public. The existing system funnels clients with a wide range of issues through the same experience and workflow, but LTF wanted to provide a more useful and customized experience for users based on the problem they are facing. They imagined a user being taken through an issue-specific DIY application that offered human intervention at appropriate junctures, thereby providing a continuum of services on a single issue in one place.
LTF also identified another problem that they hoped to solve. As Hanna Kaufman, Counsel for Innovation & Technology at LTF and LTF’s product manager, explained:
We have a civil legal aid system that caters to people who (1) know legal aid organizations exist, and (2) know that they have a legal problem. And that’s just not how the world works… Instead of asking people to find a legal organization for a legal problem, we decided to meet them where they are and offer a solution to the problems they experience in the way they actually understand them.
For the pilot project, LTF focused on housing issues for renters in Chicago. Each year more than 20,000 people are evicted from their homes in Chicago, while tens of thousands more experience problems with the conditions in their homes or disputes over security deposits. Without enough legal aid or pro bono lawyers in the area to help every low-income tenant with housing issues, LTF hoped to harness technology to provide a full range of issue-specific tools and resources free to users. The initial goals were to expand the availability of legal assistance to those who need it, and to provide legal aid organizations a vehicle for client-centered collaboration.
“As our partner on a creative journey, Theory & Principle helped turn a nascent idea into a unique, innovative final product (chatbot + virtual clinic = Rentervention). The firm is made up of people who are creative, passionate about good design, and deeply committed to building tools that make the world better.”
—- Mark Marquardt, Executive Director, Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois
Theory and Principle worked with LTF to build what became known as Rentervention.
We kicked off the discovery process by leading a design workshop for LTF in their home base of Chicago. During this workshop we expanded on the initial project goals to arrive at a mission: by using technology to deliver legal aid, we would increase the volume of people being helped and thus improve efficiency and coordination of services, and bring new problem solvers and collaborative opportunities into the process.
Armed with data collected from stakeholders, available demographic data, insights from observations in court, and a more defined mission, we identified user goals and engaged stakeholders in identifying the issues which currently prevent tenants from achieving those goals. One of the ideas that gained traction during the ideation session was a chatbot to allow users to self-help from a wide range of interfaces. We put together a simple “Wizard of Oz” prototype (where a live person acts as the “bot” in another room) and identified some key assumptions we wanted to validate about using a bot interface.
We returned to Chicago with our prototype to find out whether the users—local residents with actual housing issues—would trust a chatbot to provide it with accurate information. Additionally, we wanted to know if they would be willing to answer its questions and stick with the process long enough to get useful answers. Our testing validated that we were on the right track and gave us data to further refine our concept. For example, testers became confused when they were expected to give long answers, so we needed to structure the bot questions in such a way that the user would only need to give short answers.
With this information, we established the parameters of the project with LTF: the web application would consist of a chatbot also accessible via SMS for use by tenants, and two dashboards—one that would allow a designated administrator to assign qualifying cases to partnering lawyers, and another called the Virtual Clinic where pro bono or legal aid lawyers could review pro bono opportunities from Rentervention, accept tasks for limited-scope legal service, view uploaded documents from their assigned clients, generate correspondence to those clients, and more.
The design and development phase began after the chatbot concept was validated by user testing and all stakeholders, including advocates dedicated to helping Chicago tenants, bought into the core elements of the product. Front-end and back-end developers worked to bring the prototype to life while the designer finalized the application’s appearance with LTF, setting colors, fonts, styles, and custom art like Renny, Rentervention’s bot. Once the visual elements were approved, the front-end developer incorporated them into the application.
User testing of both the chatbot and the dashboards continued throughout development. This ensured that we stayed focused on the project mission and on meeting the needs of the expected users.
According to Theory and Principle CEO Nicole Bradick, “When you’re working on the nitty gritty details of an application, it can be easy to lose sight of the mission for the product and the goals of the user. Regular referral back to the project mission and regular testing with users keep the focus on where it should rightly be—creating impact for the users.”
The end product, Rentervention, was launched to the public in May 2019. The product can help with evictions, utility shutoffs, problems with security deposits, and issues with housing conditions. As tenants answer plain-language questions about their problems, the chatbot provides information about the best options for resolving them. Users can save their conversation for later, if they need to find a document or look something up, and they never need to create an account to receive comprehensive assistance tailored to their specific needs.
Tenants who need additional assistance and qualify will be referred to Rentervention lawyers, who have access to the chat transcript and any documents that tenants have already uploaded or generated. With the addition of customized guides and automated templates available in the Virtual Clinic, lawyers can more quickly assist tenants without needing to restart the process from the beginning.
Although this product has now been released to the public, LTF plans to continue to iterate and improve it over time and to measure its success through more positive outcomes for its users. The product was built with both feature and interface scalability in mind. For example, while natural language processing is not included in the initial release, the product has been built on a platform that would facilitate moving to NLP if users prefer a conversational interface over answering simple prompts.
“This was LTF’s first foray into software development,” Kaufman says, “and there was definitely a learning curve for us in understanding the agile development process.” But she’s happy with the results. “We are very pleased with the end product that Theory & Principle developed. . . . We had set out to build an end-to-end solution for tenants seeking help with their housing issues in Chicago, and that’s exactly what [they] delivered.”